OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On

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by Gurudutt Talgery | February 2008 | Content Management Drupal Open Source

Remembering all login IDs and passwords for all the Internet forums and communities that you are part of, is indeed an onerous task and one more registration for a new site seems like one too many. We have all tried to get around these problems by jotting down passwords on pieces of paper or sticking notes to our terminal – all potentially dangerous practices that defeat the very purpose of keeping a digital identity secure.

Gurudutt Talgery shows a solution to this problem in this article. A solution, which is free, non-proprietary, open standards based, extensible, community-driven framework with Open Source libraries and helpful tutorials to get you on board, called OpenID.

Introduction

How many times have you walked away from some Internet forum because you could not remember your login ID or password, and just did not want to go through the tedium of registering again? Or gone back to re-register yourself only to forget you password the next day? Remembering all those login IDs and passwords is indeed an onerous task and one more registration for a new site seems like one too many. We have all tried to get around these problems by jotting down passwords on pieces of paper or sticking notes to our terminal – all potentially dangerous practices that defeat the very purpose of keeping a digital identity secure.

If you had the choice of a single user ID and password combination – essentially a single digital identity – imagine how easy it might become to sign up or sign in to new sites. Suppose you could also host your own digital identity or get it hosted by third party providers who you could change at will, or create different identity profiles for different classes of sites, or choose when your User ID with a particular site should expire; suppose you could do all this and more in a free, non-proprietary, open standards based, extensible, community-driven framework (whew!) with Open Source libraries and helpful tutorials to get you on board, you would say: “OpenID”. To borrow a quote from the OpenID website openid.net: “OpenID is an open, decentralized, free framework for user-centric digital identity.”

The Concept

OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On

The concept itself is not new (and there are proprietary authentication frameworks already in existence). We are all aware of reference checks or identity documents where a reliable agency is asked to vouch for your credentials. A Passport or a Driver's License is a familiar example. Web sites, especially those that transact business, have digital certificates provided by a reliable Certification Authority so that they can prove to you, the site visitor, they are indeed who they claim to be. From here, it does not require a great stretch of imagination to appreciate that an individual netizen can have his or her own digital identity based on similar principles.

This is how you get the show on the road. First, you need to get yourself a personal identity based on OpenID from one of the numerous OpenID providers[1] or some sites that provide an OpenID with membership. This personal identity comes in the form a URL or URI (essentially a web address that starts with http:// or https://) that is unique to you. When you need to sign up or sign in to a web site that accepts OpenID logins (look for the words 'OpenID' or the OpenID logo), you submit your OpenID URL. The web site then redirects you to the site of your ID provider where you authenticate yourself with your password and optionally choose the details – such as full name, e-mail ID, or nickname, or when your login ID should expire for a particular site – that you want to share with the requesting site and allow the authentication request to go through. You are then returned to the requesting site. That is all there is to it. You are authenticated! The requesting site will usually ask you to associate a nickname with your OpenID. It should be possible to register with and sign in to different sites using different nicknames – one for each site – but the same OpenID. But you may not want to overdo this lest you get into trouble trying to recall the right nickname for a particular site.

Just Enough Detail

This is not a technical how-to. For serious technical details, you can follow the excellent links in the References section. This is a basic guide to get you started with OpenID, to show you how flexible it is, and to give pointers to its technical intricacies. By the end of this article you should be able to create your own personal digital identities based on OpenID (or discover if you already have one – you just might!), and be able to use them effectively. In the following sections, I have used some real web sites as examples. These are only for the purpose of illustration and in no way shows any preference or endorsement.

Getting Your OpenID

The simplest and most direct way to get your personal OpenID is to go to a third party provider. But before that, the smart thing to do would be find out if you already have one. For instance, if you blog at wordpress.com, then http://yourblogname.wordpress.com is an OpenID already available to you. There are other sites[1], too, that automatically provide you an OpenID with membership. Yahoo! gives you an OpenID if you have an account with them; but it is not automatic and you need to sign up for it at http://openid.yahoo.com. Your OpenID at Yahoo! will be of the form https://me.yahoo.com/your-nickname.

To get your third party hosted OpenID we will choose Verisignlab's Personal Identity Provider (PIP) site -- http://pip.verisignlabs.com/ as an example. You are of course free to decide and choose your own provider(s). The sign up form is a simple no-fuss affair with the minimum number of fields. (If you are tired of hearing 'third party', the reason for using the term will get clearer further on. For the purpose of this article, you, the owner of the OpenID are the first party, the web site that wants you authenticated is the second party, the OpenID provider being the third.)

OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On

After replying to the confirmation e-mail you are ready to take on the wide world with your OpenID. If you gave your ID as 'johndoe' then you will get an OpenID like: http://johndoe.pip.verisignlabs.com. You can come back to the PIP site and update your profile; some sites request information such as full name or e-mail ID but you are always in control whether you want to pass on this information back to them. If you choose to have just one OpenID, then this is about as much as you would ever do to sign on to any OpenID enabled site. You can also create multiple OpenID's for yourself – remember what we said earlier about having multiple ID's to suite different classes of sites.

Testing Your OpenID

Now that we have our OpenID we will test it and in the process also see how a typical OpenID-based authentication works in practice. Use the testing form[7] in the References section and enter your OpenID URL that you want tested. When you are redirected to your PIP's site (we are sticking to our Verisign example), enter your password and also choose what information you want passed back to the requesting site before clicking “Allow” to let the authentication go through. Important tip: Enter your password only on the PIP's site and nowhere else! Be aware that this particular testing page may not work with all OpenIDs; that may not necessarily mean that the OpenID itself has a problem.

Step-by-Step: Use your WordPress or Verisign OpenID

For this tutorial part, we will take the example of http://www.propeller.com (a voting site among other things) that accepts OpenID sign ups and sign ins. For an OpenID we will use the URL of your WordPress blog – http://yourblogname.wordpress.com. You could also use your OpenID URL (the one you got from the Verisign example) and follow through.

  • On the Propeller site, go to the sign up page. Look for the prominent OpenID logo.
    OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On

    Type in your OpenID URL and click on the 'Verify ...' button.

  • You are taken to the site of your PIP where you need to authenticate yourself.
       
    • If you used your Verisign OpenID, enter your password, complete the details you want to pass back to the requesting site (remember, we are trying to sign up with Propeller) and allow the authentication to go through. You are now back with the Propeller site. Just hang in there a moment as we check the flow for a Wordpress OpenID.
    •  

    • For a WordPress OpenID, you will get a screen instead that asks you to deliberately sign in to your WordPress account. Once you are signed in, you will see a hyperlink that prompts you to continue with the authentication request from Propeller.
        OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On

        Follow this link to a form that asks your permission to pass back information to Propeller such your nickname and e-mail ID. You can change both these fields if you wish and allow the authentication to go through.

        OpenID: The Ultimate Sign On
  • Now you should be back at the Propeller site with a successful OpenID verification. The site will ask you to associate a nickname with your OpenID and a working e-mail to complete your registration process.
  • This step is no different from a normal sign up process. Check your e-mail, click on the link provided therein, get back to the Propeller site, and click another link to complete the registration process. You are automatically signed in to Propeller. Sign out for the moment so that we can see how an OpenID sign in works.
  • Go to the sign in page at Propeller. You will see a normal sign in and an OpenID sign in. We will use the OpenID one (of course!). Type in your OpenID URL and click on the “Sign in...” button. Complete the formalities on your PIP site (for Verisign you will get a sign in page; for Wordpress you will need to sign in first unless you are already signed in) and let the authentication go through.
  • This time you are back on the Propeller site all signed in and ready to go. Note that your nickname appears correctly because your OpenID is associated with it.

That is all there is to it. Easier done than said. Try this a couple of times and I bet it will feel easier than the remote control of your home entertainment system!

Your Custom OpenID URL

If you want a personalized OpenID URL and do not like the one provided by your PIP you can always use delegation to get what you want. To make your blog or personal home page as your OpenID URL, insert the following in the head portion (the part that falls between <head> and </head> on an HTML page) of your blog or any page that you own. This will only work with pages that you completely own and have control over their source. There is a Wordpress plug-in that gives delegating capability to your Wordpress.com blog but we will not go into that here.

The first URL is your OpenID server. The second URL is your OpenID URL – either the one you host yourself or the one provided by a third party. The requesting site discovers your OpenID and correctly authenticates you. With this approach you can switch providers transparently.

At the risk of repeating: test your new personalized URL before you start using it. Note that the 'openid.server' URL may vary depending on the PIP. To get the name of your PIP's OpenID server, use the testing service[7] which reports the correct URL for your PIP to use with the “openid.server” part your delegation mark up.

<link rel="openid.server" href="http://pip.verisignlabs.com/server" />
<link rel="openid.delegate" href="http://johndoe.pip.verisignlabs.com/" />

Rolling Your Own

If you are paranoid about entrusting the management of your digital identity to another web site and also have the technical smarts to match, there are ways you can become your own PIP[5][6]. If you are tech-savvy then you cannot fail to appreciate the elegance of the OpenID architecture and the way it lets control stay where it should – with you.

Account Management – Lite?

OpenID makes life easier for site visitors. But what about the site and the domain administrators? If administrators decide to go the OpenID way[3], it lightens their load by taking away a major part of the chore of membership administration and authentication. As a bonus, it also potentially opens up a site to the entire community of net users that have OpenID's or are getting one.

Security and Reliability

As the wisecrack goes – if you want complete security, you should unplug from the Internet. On a serious note, there are some precautions you have to take while using OpenID and they are no different from the precautions you would take for any item associated with your identity, say your Passport or your credit card. Remember to enter your password only on the Identity Provider's site and nowhere else. Be alert to phishing. This explains why WordPress asks you to log in explicitly rather than take you directly to their authentication page. Never use your e-mail ID handle as your OpenID name but use a different one.

Using OpenID has its flip side, too. Getting your OpenID from a provider potentially lays open your browsing habits to tracking. You can get around this by being your own PIP, delegating from your own domain, or creating a PIP profile under an alias. There is the possibility that your OpenID provider goes out of service or worse, out of business. It is thus important to choose a reliable identity provider. There are sites that allow you to associate multiple OpenIDs with your account and perhaps this can be a way forward to popularize OpenID and to allay any fears of getting locked in with a single vendor and getting locked out of your identity in the process.

Your Call

There are many sites today that are not OpenID-ready. There are some sites that allow only OpenID sign ons. However, if you see the elegance of the OpenID mechanism and the convenience it provides both site administrators and members, you might agree that its time has come.

Get an OpenID if you do not have one. Convince your friends to get theirs. And if you run an online community or are a member of one, throw your weight around to ensure that your site also provides an OpenID sign on.

References

  1. http://wiki.openid.net/OpenIDServers is a list of ID providers.
  2. http://blogs.zdnet.com/digitalID/?p=78 makes a strong case for OpenID. Read it to get a good perspective on the subject.
  3. http://www.plaxo.com/api/openid_recipe is a soup-to-nuts tutorial on how to enable your site for OpenID authentication or migrate to OpenID from your current site-specific authentication scheme.
  4. Check out http://www.openidenabled.com/php-openid/ if you are looking for software libraries to OpenID-enable your site.
  5. http://www.intertwingly.net/blog/2007/01/03/OpenID-for-non-SuperUsers is a crisp if intermediate-level how-to that lets you try out new things in the OpenID space.
  6. http://siege.org/projects/phpMyID/ shows you how you can run your own (yes, your own) PIP server.
  7. http://www.openidenabled.com/resources/openid-test/checkup is a link that helps you test your OpenID. Once you get your OpenID, you can submit it to the form on this URL and get yourself authenticated to see if everything works fine. Does not seem to work with Wordpress and Yahoo! OpenIDs as of this writing.
  8. http://www.openid.net is the OpenID site.

 

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About the Author :


Gurudutt Talgery has wide-ranging industry experience in the areas of software development, software process, and product engineering with the Indian arms of reputed transnational technology companies. His current interests include content management, search applications, and information retrieval using open-source solution stacks.

Gurudutt finds a strong similarity between the spiritual freedom propounded by the ancient Indian Vedanta philosophy and the empowering freedom provided by the modern-day Open Source Software(OSS) movement. He single handedly manages a no-frills, multilingual India-centric search engine: www.bhramara.in. He blogs, a lot less frequently than he would like, at www.bhramara.in/blog.

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